I had no idea of what to expect from Vietnam. As a child born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants, the stories I have heard were punctuated by laughter that masked the dark aftermath of war. My knowledge of Vietnamese culture was knowing that nước mắm was delicious despite its smell; my grasp of the language allowing me to be able to order certain dishes, count to three and pronounce phở correctly. Coming out the other end of Vietnam (literally – I flew out of Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon) and the Bloom Program, I can definitely say that I have learnt many things.
The first lesson I learnt was smiles was an international currency. More often than not, the group would find ourselves at a loss in markets around Hanoi as we tried to bargain for that knick-knack we had our eye on. We quickly learnt how useful the calculator app was on our phones, as we paired up the numbers with smiles and pleading eyes that would put puppies to shame. A smile also goes great when we were riding around the villages on bicycles or tractors, waving to the bemused locals.
The second lesson I learnt was that a little goes a long way. A simple ‘xin chào’ would be enough to brighten someone’s face. A ‘cảm ơn’ would bring on confusion, especially after having a conversation with our lovely guide as translator. 1000 or 2000 VND that the odd cabbie would try to keep was no longer 6 cents during the last few days, but the principle of having being short-changed (we obviously did not budget well). This concept really struck home for me when I made my Vietnamese-speaking mother send a quick message to the Village Chief. The voice clip was less than a minute long, and said a simple thanks from one parent to another for caring for their child in their native tongue. The Village Chief was thrilled, and began to interview me. He asked me how I felt visiting Vietnam for the first time, how my mother and her family regards Vietnam, and he asked what he could do as a leader that could improve the villages so as to bring pride to those who have left their homes and families following the war. He ended the interview by sending a video message back to my mother, thanking her for her thanks, wishing her a new year, and inviting the rest of my family to stay in his care.
I made sure to exchange new year’s greetings with the lovely team at Bloom and the Village Chief’s family, and needless to say they were thrilled to bits to see a loud, thriving Vietnamese family much like their own bring in the year of the goat all the way in Australia. My Vietnamese vocabulary has somewhat expanded, though most words are food related. This fantastic experience has allowed me to establish a connection to a country I only previously heard stories about, and helped me further my understanding of a culture whose principals are the core foundations of my family’s values. Big thanks to BUiLD for presenting me with this opportunity, to Bloom for being a wonderful bridge that facilitated this experience for me in the best way possible, and the crew of 12 other oddballs from UTS for all the laughs, the talks and the flu.